Sportswashing and the reinvention of golf

Or: SHOW ME THE MONEY. A few thoughts on the making of the new LIV golf tour and what it means for golf, golfers, and fans of all sports around the world.

In the John Sayles film “Eight Men Out,” the team that would become the great Chicago Black Sox clack their spikes down the tunnel from the field into the clubhouse to find a table lined with Champagne bottles awaiting the newly crowned pennant champions soon headed to the infamous 1919 World Series.

Pitcher Eddie Cicotte asks about owner Charles Comisky, “he didn’t happen to mention when we could expect that bonus he promised us if we took the flag, did he?”

“This is your bonus,” comes the reply and the players are as deflated as the Champagne bottles they’ll never drink from.

This, in a nutshell, is the historical problem with professional sports. And something important to remember when trying to understand the upheaval going on in professional golf at the moment.

The LIV tour p  sponsored by the government of Saudi Arabia is flaunting its very deep pockets in an attempt to cover it’s tracks and change the game of golf for the worse – possibly forever.

It is also important to remember that there are many more important things going on in the world right now. But in the golf world, with the 150th Open Championship being contested at St. Andrews this week. And an announcement coming out from all different sides every day, for those of us fans and enthusiasts, we can feel the tremors under our spikes.

So for those of you who do not follow golf… A new professional tour – or league – of sorts has been created that presents the possibility of changing the fundamental structure of the sport at around the globe. It’s called the LIV tour. Founded by Greg Norman, former world #1 player, and funded by something called the Public Investment Fund, which is the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia.

Before a few weeks ago, at the sport’s highest level, you had only two main tours. Two main organizations, the PGA Tour in America and the European Tour.

Greg Norman tried to create a breakaway world tour back in the 90s and that effort was rejected and beaten back by the PGA Tour. He’s had a chip on his shoulder about it ever since.

So what is the LIV Tour?

It’s all very complicated from a fan’s perspective and incredibly boring to most non-fans, but basically, the Saudi Government is funding this new venture and spending gobs and gobs of money to attract players into their fold.

The biggest criticism is that it is a “sports washing” program designed to cover up the Saudi Government’s long history of human rights abuses and alleged crimes around the world. From the Saudi Crown Prince’s involvement in the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi to the fact that the majority of the 9/11 hijackers were either Saudi nationals or connected to Saudi Arabia in some way. And a long list of other issues both real and reputational.

The criticism of Greg Norman is that this tour exists at all smacks of pure vengeance on his part for what he sees as a long list of personal slights from the PGA Tour when he was at the top of his game.

The hit on the players is that it is a pure money play for them and does nothing for the good of the game around the world. The new league has guaranteed contracts for very large sums regardless of how they finish in any events.

The PGA Tour has basically washed it’s hands of the players who jumped ship and relieved them of their PGA Tour memberships as has the European Tour. The players are a short list so far, but are made up of some of the best players approaching the end of their careers, some brand-new top-amateurs just turned professional, some journeyman pros to fill out the fields, and a few real top active players as well.

From their side, these players say they’re trying to grow the game by making it go more global. Making it more interesting. They say they want to play fewer events and spend more time with their families. Most people following it believe this holds no water.

The structure of the events is laughable on its face. They play 54 holes over three days in a shotgun start more suitable to a corporate outing – compared to the top-level tournaments that are 72 holes over four days. They have an uninteresting team format. They play loud music and have excessive hospitality and concession operations for the limited number of fans in attendance. They have no TV deal as of yet and broadcast on their own YouTube channel only.

For their part, founded in 1929, the PGA Tour is what has grown the professional game most since the 1950s and by leaps and bounds since John Daly and then Tiger Woods came on the scene in the 1990s. It is, largely, the reason it’s players compete for such large purses in the first place. It is largely why golf is one of the world’s most popular participant sports today.

That’s not to say the PGA Tour is not without its problems, but it is the Major League of the sport. In baseball, they’d call it The Show.

I’ve always been critical myself that touring professionals are considered independent contractors, have no real players association with collective bargaining power, and therefore are not truly protected by the PGA Tour in their careers in any meaningful way. The Tour has conducted business with Saudi and other troublesome sponsor organizations in the past. And they’ve had some PR black eyes other than these things, but generally, they’ve been good for the game – at  the player level and the fan level alike. They’ve cooperated with the amateur organization – the USGA as well as the PGA of America.

So why are some of the best players in the game defecting to a tour with a lesser product that fans are not really all that interested in yet? A tour that, so far, doesn’t enable them to earn qualification for the four Majors of the year. A tour that makes them ineligible to compete in the other major tours around the world. Why does it make sense for them?

In a word… Money.

At this point, these players care more about the money than they do about the game. The only way this makes sense is as some kind of investment strategy. Maybe in an optimizing your celebrity – maximizing controversy kind of way, it makes sense. Maybe purely as a way of generating cash – yeah – and with the amount of money the Saudis are reportedly throwing around – some players are reportedly cashing in for $100M without having to tee up a ball.  I can certainly see the attraction.

But as a fan.

As a kid who grew up watching the last round of every PGA tour event every week in the den of my grandfather’s house. Hearing the stories of not just Nicklaus and Palmer, but Hogan and Snead and Hagen and all the way back to Ouimet.

As a fan who soaked up every ounce of the beauty and tradition and history of the US Open as it returned to Brookline a couple of weeks ago.

Some people are really riled up about it. Far be it from me to criticize someone for optimizing their market value. If they want to make a boatload of cash – good on ‘em.

As a fan, I won’t protest because I don’t feel strongly enough about their choices. No skin off my nose if I never see Pat Perez play again. But the bottom line is this new tour is just not that interesting a product.

LIV golf is everything we hate about professional sports. Set aside the sportswashing argument for a moment, which is real, and not insignificant, but largely irrelevant to most fans. How many times have you heard a non-golf fan say something like “the idea of a bunch of millionaires walking around playing for a big check just doesn’t appeal to me.” And that’s when there’s really something on the line. Now, it’s a bunch of millionaires, some of whom even I as a fan haven’t heard of, playing a rain-shortened, charity outing format for nothing that matters? Seriously, who cares.

Resentment in a famous millionaire is a powerful thing. It can break things. It has broken things in the past. Sometimes that power can break things for good. But most of the time, especially when it’s borne out of resentment, it can break things other people love. And that hurts. Even when those broken things were flawed at the start.

Scott Fitzgerald wrote in Gatsby…

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that held them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…”

So much of what’s going on in our modern world can be explained in this simple thought.

Tiger. Jack. Arnie. Hogan. The Squire. Jones. Sir Walter. Old Tom.

As that kid who still tees it up hoping to capture just an ounce of the magic of these great stories, I just don’t understand it. I don’t like it. And I won’t watch it.

The perfect metaphor for the new LIV golf league emerged, I think, at the Travelers championship a few weeks ago. I won’t mention the name, but the summary is “spoiled player launches bad shot off the 18th fairway over the green, off the property and into the unknown.” He then walks off the course without signing a card, disqualifying himself and annoying everyone to join the new Norman/Saudi gang. Why not play with no stakes and cash a big check with no risk.

This is completely the opposite of the traditions of the game. Hell, it doesn’t even make sense in the sporting world. He didn’t even so much as shake hands with his playing partners before leaving.

Now we all lose patience from time to time. We all get frustrated and do things we regret doing. But this story reflects a certain level of unearned privilege that, in my experience, most fans will not easily forget.

Does the new tour support this kind of behavior? Do they want this to reflect the traditions they’re trying to establish? The PGA Tour would most certainly exact an unpublicized fine. And may still do. But the new tour? Do they care? We’ll see.

Why am I talking about this here. Well, I’m a fan of the game. I’ve been a fan of the history and traditions of the professional game.

And they are making something new. Something that they think will sell. And I think they’re wrong. At least so far.

I’ve always thought golf was different than most sports. I’ve always thought it matters somehow. Always thought it was a game that made us better to have played. I still do. I may just not watch for awhile. I may leave the pros to their own devices and hope that, as Winston Churchill once described Americans, they’ll do the right thing. Eventually.

I believe if it is to survive, the LIV format will have to change significantly because as-is, it serves Saudi. And it serves the players, although it remains to be seen if, how, when, and how swiftly they are getting paid their large sums. But it’s not really doing anything for anyone else. The format is uninteresting. The team element irrelevant. There’s nothing at stake other than someone else’s unlimited bank account. It’s not even really doing anything positive for Greg Norman. What it is doing in it’s press conferences is exposing at least some of the players to be the entitled, spoiled, out of touch millionaire athletes we’ve made them into.

If it survives, it will have survived because it had to. Because the fans wanted it. In short, if it survives, it needs to be made into something that matters. Right now, it’s not.

The majors – four of them plus the Players every year – matter. The fans matter. The money the tour generates for local and larger charities every year matters. The interest in the game the tour generates through showing off their best competition matters to fans. And most of all, the fans matter.

LIV golf, right now, doesn’t really matter. And worse, it is doing the exact opposite of what it was created to do. It’s drawing attention to the previous, current, and likely future bad acts of the government bankrolling it.

It’s more of a freeway rubbernecking delay than it is a golf league. I feel badly for some of the players who traded their reputations for a few pieces of silver.

But I’ll be thinking of other things as I tee it up this weekend.

Be careful out there.